Symphony Hall is set for fireworks on Wednesday when the CBSO presents a glittering programme of contemporary music.
The elder statesman at the feast will be the complete score of Ravel’s Mother Goose ballet, but apart from that every offering comes from the last few years.
Thomas Ades, strongly connected with the CBSO since the Simon Rattle years, conducts, and ends the evening with his own Tevot. The piece was commissioned and premiered by Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and employs a huge orchestra on which it makes virtuosic demands.
The title has two Hebrew meanings: “arks” and “bar-lines”, and Ades has used his musical bar-lines to convey the idea of arks has a means of salvation, a cradle of comfort, and a means of thrusting out in exploration.
Sandwiched between these two orchestral works are two new piano concertos. One is the Concertino “Non sere yo quien diga nada” (‘I’m not saying nothing’) by the young Spanish composer Francisco Coll, here receiving its UK premiere after its world premiere by the Valencia Youth Orchestra in 2012. This will follow the UK premiere of Gerald Barry’s Piano Concerto, co-commissioned by the CBSO, and premiered in Munich last year by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Soloist on both occasions was the pianist Nicolas Hodges, who says of Barry’s Concerto: “Like Gerald Barry, his Piano Concerto is quick-witted, gripping and provocative. It’s like Baroque on speed. It’s too much fun.”
He adds: “After university, as a little-known young pianist, I was eager to commission him, but it didn’t work out. Two decades later, I happened to be in Los Angeles and managed to catch his opera The Importance of Being Earnest. Backstage afterwards I plucked up the courage to ask him again, and this time it was a Yes!”
Nicolas Hodges connections with the CBSO go back a long way.
“It’s always great to be back in Birmingham,” he says. “I first worked with the CBSO in the early 1980s, singing in the boys choir for Britten’s War Requiem under Simon Rattle. Much has changed since then, but Birmingham remains a vibrant musical centre which I’m always delighted to visit.”
Nicolas is renowned as an exponent of the music of so many contemporary composers, and he explains how this world opened up to him.
“I was lucky enough to hear a lot of contemporary music while still a child, and I simply accepted it as just another area of music, like any other,” he tells me. “I remember hearing Stockhausen aged about nine, and had already sung in the Proms under the baton of Penderecki at the age of 12. I enjoyed it just like I enjoyed Beethoven or Debussy – same as now in fact!”
He has worked so many compelling composers of today. How much interaction does he have with them?
“Well obviously that depends. Some I have become personally and artistically very close to, others not. But it’s always fascinating to work with major composers, and I’m hugely grateful for being in the position I am in this regard.
“The Birmingham concert allows me to work with three favourite musicians: Adès, Barry, and Coll. It’s always a pleasure to be with just one of them, so this is going to be a special week indeed!”
I then ask Nicolas if he has ever found himself playing any contemporary duds (of which in my experience there are so many). His response is both shrewd and reassuring.
“No. I have managed to avoid playing music by composers I don’t trust, and while some pieces work better than others even the failures of great artists have their value and interest.”
We go on to talk about technical matters, wondering if there is a different kind of muscle-memory involved in performing today’s music as compared with that of 100 and 200 years ago.
“Not really. Or if there is, it’s only because music today requires you to move around the keyboard in a rather different way,” he replies.
I ask Nicolas who comes up with the funding whenever he commissions.
“It’s different for each project. The Barry was commissioned by CBSO and the Bavarian Radio, to both of whom I am very grateful. Without such enlightened programming and commissioning by orchestras such as these, orchestral music would be dying a slow death. As it is, it is alive and well, as this concert proves. If I weren’t playing in it, I’d be going to it.”
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